Biden administration joins call for 'swift appointment' of new WTO head

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Doug Palmer
·3 min read
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The United States supports quickly ending the impasse the Trump administration created over the selection of the next director general for the World Trade Organization, a top Swiss official said Friday.

"Members stressed the urgency of the swift appointment of a new WTO director general, as well as the confirmation of the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference," Swiss Economic Affairs Minister Guy Parmelin said in his closing statement at virtual meeting of senior trade officials from 29 WTO members, including the United States. "Ministers reiterated their determination to maintain a credible multilateral trading system and to restore a climate of mutual trust."

Backstory: The Swiss government hosts a ministerial meeting in late January every time, in conjunction with the World Economic Forum meeting held in Davos. The meeting was virtual this year because of the pandemic.

The United States was represented at the meeting by David Bisbee, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. mission to the WTO since President Joe Biden's nominee to be U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, has not been confirmed by the Senate.

The Trump administration preferred bilateral negotiations to multilateral, and effectively crippled the WTO's appellate body on the grounds it overstepped its bounds.

Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis represented their governments at the Swiss event, along with top trade officials from Brazil, India, Canada, Japan, Australia and other member states.

WTO leadership race: The attendees also included South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, who is one of two remaining candidates for the post of WTO director general. The other is former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who emerged in last fall as the consensus choice of all but one WTO member, the United States. There was no Nigerian representative at Friday's meeting, unlike past years.

Lighthizer blocked Okonjo-Iweala's selection, saying Yoo was more qualified. After former President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, it now is up to the Biden administration to decide whether to rally behind Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a former World Bank official, or stick with the candidate put forward by the U.S.'s close Asian ally.

Bisbee said the selection of a new director general is "critical" to achieving much-needed reforms, but gave no indication which way the administration is leaning. "This important leadership decision, along with many others critical to the organization, are currently under active consideration in Washington," he said in prepared remarks.

However, there is enormous international pressure on Biden to join the consensus around Okonjo-Iweala, who holds dual U.S. citizenship, as well as from some members of Congress.

"I want to urge @POTUS to join the 163 member countries of @WTO in supporting the nomination of @NOIweala to head the World Trade Organization," Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter earlier this week. Bass chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. She was also considered as a candidate to serve as Biden's vice president.

Ministerial Conference: The WTO was forced by the pandemic to postpone its 12th Ministerial Conference in Kazakhstan last June, and still has not decided on a date to reschedule it. Kazakhstan has offered to host it in June of this year, but there is doubt that the pandemic will be over by then. That has led to talk of postponing it until December and picking a new location because of Kazakhstan's inhospitable winters.

"We agree with others that MC12 will be an important opportunity for Members to demonstrate that the WTO is an institution that can deliver results, and that we can make progress in this time of crisis," Bisbee said. "The United States is fully committed to engaging with our trading partners to find meaningful and high ambition outcomes for MC12."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated that it was the first time the U.S. had attended in the meeting since 2018. The U.S. attended the event last year.